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He's not my cup of tea but Britten's great for many

IN the coming year we will be awash with high-profile centenary celebrations.

I've already touched on the 100th anniverary of the first performance of Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring. And there are others, of which more anon. But there is one that is already having an impact on the musical world, so we had better clock it: 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten.

I've always had a funny, ambivalent relationship with the music of Britten. I do not doubt he was the greatest UK composer of the 20th century. He was unique. He fashioned his own distinctive musical language that resisted the influences of the various periods of 20th-century modernism, instead connecting with musical audiences through a language that seemed "public", however sophisticated and multi-layered it might be. Composer John Adams memorably said Britten's music achieves its greatness through the composer's belief in the demotic: that its ultimate strength is that it draws on "the common language": Britten eschewed the trends and fashions of high-art post-war modernism in the 20th century.

And unquestionably, with the personal musical language that he cultivated, he created some of the century's greatest masterpieces: the shattering opera Peter Grimes stands alongside Alban Berg's Wozzeck as one of the supreme operas of the era, while his opera Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the most alluring, bewitching compositions ever conceived.

So where's the ambivalence? Putting it crudely, by and large I don't "get" the music of Britten. I know a fair amount of it, but, emotionally, it doesn't hit the spot for me. I listen to it, I'm in awe of the craftsmanship and the sheer invention of something new and original created out of fairly familiar musical components. But I could pretty well list the works that "do it" for me, including Peter Grimes, Midsummer Night's Dream, Les Illuminations, the Frank Bridge Variations and, believe it it or not, Noye's Fludde and some of the folk song settings.

But most of the operas, the War Requiem, song cycles, quartets and so on simply leave me untouched. This might horrify some. Is this heretical, poor judgment or just a lack of taste? I've wondered myself. Many years ago I was intrigued when someone told me Britten himself had a fundamental problem with the music of Brahms: that he had really worked at it, going through Brahms's music, studying it, understanding it, listening to it, thinking about it, but on each occasion coming away from the experience untouched; it just didn't reach him. I also remember being told Britten went so far as to conclude there was nothing much of value in Brahms's music. I certainly wouldn't go that far with Britten: I know a masterpiece when I hear one, even if I don't like it. I went through a similar experience with Brahms many years ago, as I was reminded the week before last at the City Hall by composer and author John Purser, who, referring to a radio debate we had had about 30 years ago, asked me if I had come through my "aversion" to Brahms. "Yes," I replied ruefully, "and came out an addict."

So there's hope for me yet with Britten's music, and no shortage of opportunities on the immediate horizon. To mark the centenary of the composer's birth The Britten-Pears Foundation has launched a year-long celebration of Britten's music that will feature more than 1300 performances in over 30 countries and 140 cities. It will amount to the largest-ever celebration of a UK composer. All 14 of Britten's operas will be performed in the UK; but it will be a global celebration. Operas will also be staged in Brazil, Chile, China, Israel, Turkey, Russia and New Zealand. There will be new TV documentaries and books.The BBC will have wall-to-wall Britten performances throughout the year and there will be a week-long festival in Glasgow. Blimey; strong drink will be required by agnostics that week.

Visit www.britten100.org.

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